January 2018 press conference wasn’t a good idea, SC didn’t come out better (in the sexual harassment allegations against ex-CJI), says Justice Deepak Gupta. Not that anybody would offer him that, but he would not have accepted the Government’s offer of a Rajya Sabha seat; the Supreme Court hasn’t “come out better” after the allegations of sexual harassment against former Chief Justice Ranjan Gogoi; the January 2018 press conference by SC judges “was not a good idea,” cases involving “big money and “fancy law firms” seem to get priority in listing. Supreme Court judge Justice Deepak Gupta, who retired Wednesday after a three-year stint, spoke to The Indian Express.
Before retirement, some Supreme Court judges take a stand on whether they will accept post-retirement jobs from the government. What are your views?
I will not accept any offers from the government. There are some tribunals that are required by law to be manned by ex-SC judges and somebody has to be appointed to these posts but it is not for me. You have to distinguish short-term assignments for the SC to head committees etc from government appointments. That has been my judicial and personal view.
Would nomination to the Rajya Sabha by the President, as in the case of former CJI Ranjan Gogoi, qualify as a post-retirement job offered by the government?
In my view, it does. I would not have accepted it. Although I think nobody would offer it to me in the first place.
Justice Gogoi said he would act as a bridge between the executive and judiciary in his stint as a parliamentarian. Your comment?
The bridge between the executive and the judiciary exists. It is the Chief Justice. When I was the Chief Justice in high courts, I have dealt with Chief Ministers on various issues.
You have been very vocal on protecting the right to dissent and have said that there are no holy cows when it comes to dissent. How do you see the expression of dissent amongst judges in January 12, 2018 press conference?
I was not in Delhi and was travelling abroad when it happened. But when I got to know about it, I was very perturbed. Going to the press was not a good idea and the institution is always bigger than any individual. My personal view is that they (Justices Ranjan Gogoi, J Chelameswar, Kurian Joseph and Madan Lokur) should have settled whatever issues within the system. However, having said that, I think that the CJI must also be receptive to talking to all the judges.
During your tenure, were there any formal consultations among judges on these controversial issues concerning the judiciary?
No. No CJI called for a full-court on these issues. We hardly had any full-court meetings except for fixing calendars and designating senior advocates. There was a request made to former CJI Dipak Misra once but it did not happen.
It has been a year since an employee of the SC accused then CJI Gogoi of sexual harassment. An internal committee found no substance in the allegations and gave a clean chit to Gogoi. How do you evaluate the court’s response in hindsight?
I am not privy to the merits of the case and what transpired in the committee but in my opinion, the hearing on April 20, 2019 on a Saturday morning (In Re Matter of Great Public Importance Touching upon the Independence of the Judiciary in which justice Gogoi presided over the bench but did not sign the order) was uncalled for. Simply put, the Supreme Court has not come out better after the incident.
There was criticism that the committee had no external members and only SC judges.
I don’t agree that the committee must have outsiders. You have to show trust in the institution. The committee can draw up its own procedure so I would not comment on it.
There was also a probe by former SC judge AK Patnaik into the “larger conspiracy” in the sexual harassment allegation. Did that report have any impact?
My information is also that a report was submitted but I have not seen it.
There’s been criticism on the priority or lack thereof given to certain cases in the SC. While some crucial cases like the case of the electoral bonds are not listed for years, many others are taken up and fast-tracked without explanation. Do you acknowledge this is an issue?
I do. The SC is a very registry-driven court and so the registry needs to be pepped up. The registrars come from different high courts with varied experience but do not have managerial skills. The CJI and registry decide everything. The listing needs to be managed by technology and leave little room for discretion.
I have myself seen that cases involving big money and fancy law firms are listed exactly in four weeks when we say list after four weeks but those involving junior lawyers are not listed even for six months despite our orders saying list the case in four weeks.
You are the first SC judge to have had a virtual farewell keeping in with the Covid times. What are the lessons courts must learn to adapt to this virtual world?
Even without Covid, we should have used technology better but we have not. This is a great opportunity to shift to video-conferencing certain cases, especially those in pre-trial stages. For example, remand hearings of undertrials, service of cases can all be done virtually. I see no reason why the SC hearings should not be live-streamed. Video-conferencing has its benefits even for judges. The unnecessary theatrics of lawyers will also reduce.
Some judges, including Justice Gogoi, have referred to this aspect of lawyers allegedly trying to browbeat judges. Is that what you are referring to as theatrics?
There are surely some lawyers who criticise the judges when favourable orders are not passed. Some proclaim they have no faith in the judiciary and then still come to the court. It happens everywhere. However, I believe the court cannot refuse to hear anybody simply because they criticised the court. It is a fundamental right to be heard by the court.
What is your parting advice on reforming the judiciary?
Two big pressing concerns for me are pendency of cases and appointments. We can tackle pendency when we have better infrastructure. We need better-trained and honest judges to have an independent judiciary. On appointments, I will only say that appointments on all levels must be made only on grounds of merit.
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